08/10/2011 1:23PM

Sheikh Mohammed stands out as big spender at Fasig-Tipton Saratoga sale

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Rain pelted Fasig-Tipton’s auction grounds Tuesday night, but from where Thoroughbred breeder Nancy Dillman and her husband Carl stood, things looked entirely sunny.

“All my life I’ve wanted to sell a horse for a million dollars, and I just did it!,” Nancy Dillman, who owns five mares, confided excitedly in a lull from the congratulatory handshakes and media interviews. The Dillmans found a quiet, dim spot outside the sale pavilion, sheltered from the rain by the building’s eaves. Behind them, another yearling circled the bidding ring, and the Saratoga select yearling sale’s final session rolled on. But 90 minutes into the session, Nancy Dillman’s work already was done. Her Bernardini colt, a half-brother to Grade 1 winner Havre de Grace, had just brought the night’s top price of $1.2 million.

Dillman was the only breeder who could celebrate a seven-figure yearling on Tuesday night at a session that looked very much like the Saratoga select sale’s opener on Monday. Once again, the session-topper was a $1.2 million colt by a young Darley Stud stallion and was purchased by Darley’s owner, Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum.

Cataloged as Hip No. 114 in the Mill Ridge agency’s consignment, the Bernardini colt is out of the Carson City winner Easter Bunnette, making him a half-brother to 2011 Apple Blossom winner Havre de Grace, by Saint Liam. His price equaled the $1.2 million Maktoum paid Monday night for Superfection, WinStar Farm’s Medaglia d’Oro half-brother to 2010 Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver. Maktoum also stands Medaglia d’Oro.

The two sessions grossed $32,892,000 for 103 yearlings, up 1 percent despite a significantly smaller catalog this year. The $319,340 average price ended up 16 percent, and the $250,000 median gained 4 percent. Buybacks also improved, falling from 28 percent last year to 22 percent.

The catalog was full of good pedigrees, but that wasn’t enough to make a big sale in the selective market, sellers said.

“You have to bring a very, very nice horse up here that has very few flaws,” said Three Chimneys Farm president Case Clay. “You can’t bring a bad horse up or it’s not going to sell.”

Maktoum proved the market’s strongest pillar. He spent more than $8.5 million for 13 yearlings at the two-day sale, usually picking up horses by his own sires. Six were by champion Bernardini, bought for an average price of $754,166. But not all the Bernardinis went to Maktoum. Team Valor paid $110,000 for a filly out of Perfect Sting’s daughter Damask Rose from the Hidden Brook agency, and yearling-to-juvenile resellers Hartley/De Renzo Thoroughbreds spent $325,000 for the Kaizen agency’s half-brother to graded-placed stakes winner Millennium Storm.

Still, Maktoum was responsible for slightly more than a quarter of the sale’s gross. Beyond the receipts his chief agent, John Ferguson, signed on the Dubai ruler’s behalf, there were numerous other purchases believed to be Maktoum-related, such as those by his close associates Rabbah Bloodstock. Speculation was rife that a number of British trainers and agents who declined to name their clients also were buying for Maktoum or his friends. That made it difficult to measure precisely how much of the gross flowed from Dubai, which is also the home of Fasig-Tipton’s owner, Synergy Investments. Synergy’s chairman, Abdulla al Habbai, also is Maktoum’s close associate.

The connection occasionally has raised questions, particularly among buyers leery of bidding against the house, so to speak, and Fasig-Tipton executives repeatedly have declared the company’s ownership independent ever since Ferguson helped negotiate the company’s purchase by Synergy in 2009. Whatever his connection, sellers understandably welcomed Maktoum’s big push in the market.

“After the stock market was down over 600 points on Monday, I was pessimistic, to be honest,” said a “pleasantly surprised” Clay, whose agency sold four horses – none to Maktoum – for a total of $720,000. “A lot of it was, thankfully, supported by Sheikh Mohammed. But that’s real money that goes into the breeders’ pockets, so that’s good for the market and good for the breeders. Expectations were lower, and results were higher than I thought.”

Throughout Tuesday night’s session, Maktoum stood alongside Ferguson behind the sale pavilion. Even the rain provided the opportunity for him to promote his Darley Stud brand: when showers started, a member of his entourage dutifully held a royal blue Darley-branded umbrella over Maktoum as he flipped through his catalog.

Maktoum’s Persian Gulf emirate has seen its share of financial turmoil recently, most notably requiring a bailout in 2009 from its wealthier neighbor, Abu Dhabi. But Maktoum’s substantial wealth, and his willingness to trade some of it for yearlings, soothed sellers’ and sale executives’ nerves after 10 days that saw the stock market plunge twice, then rebound Tuesday by 400 points hours before the auction’s final session.

Even buyers on a budget seemed relieved by the Saratoga yearling market’s apparent strength, though it meant bargains were rare. Strong prices prompted most resellers to keep their wallets closed, with a few notable exceptions. In addition to Hartley/De Renzo’s Bernardini purchase, David Scanlon paid $285,000 for the Woods Edge agency’s Street Boss half-brother to stakes winner Midnight Visit.

“For the right horse, you’ve got to jump on it and take advantage,” said Scanlon, who confirmed the colt was a resale prospect. “I stretched for him, but I’m playing. I’m taking a chance.”

“Right now, things look good,” said Virginia-based bloodstock agent Debbie Easter. “People bring a nice horse up here, and it sells well. I was on a budget, and the fortunate thing for everybody selling horses up here is that I couldn’t afford to buy one, the prices are so good. I think everybody ought to be happy overall, especially considering what’s going on worldwide.”

Relief was widespread among consignors as the final session wound to its conclusion late Tuesday night. But even as he called the auction “a damn good horse sale,” Fasig-Tipton’s president, Boyd Browning, sounded a cautious note.

“There were 160 horses cataloged in this sale, which is a very small percentage of the population overall in this industry,” he said. “I think it’s encouraging, it gives people hope, but I don’t think anyone is euphoric about the overall state of the marketplace. But I think people are encouraged by the continuation of a marketplace that is similar to last year, and seems maybe a little bit better.”